The Dream Cream

It was London, the early 1990s. We had our first encounter at the Hyde Park Hotel. Then a rendezvous at Brown’s Hotel. Which led to a brief, unplanned interlude at Fortnum & Mason. The affair was outrageous, indulgent, decadent. I had fallen madly in love. With clotted cream.

Yes, I swooned over something that sounds like you should put a Band-Aid on it rather than eat it. But, oh, the stuff was glorious: unctuous, buttery, rich. Every afternoon of my trip, I slathered it on scones snatched from tiered silver trays in hushed hotel tearooms.

And, like most of those smitten with a new love, I didn’t bother to ask for details. I vaguely assumed it was heavy cream, whipped almost into butter but stopped just short of that transformation.

Returning home to the United States, I pined for clotted cream. It wasn’t to be found at even the swankiest hotel tea services, where whipped cream was foisted on me instead. That started the questions: What, actually, is this rich, golden goo? How is it made? And why are the Brits keeping it all for themselves?

On a recent trip to England, I set out to find the answers — and the best clotted cream the country has to offer. At first, my research pointed me toward Jersey, one of the Channel Islands near France and origin of the Jersey cow breed. Jersey cows typically give milk with a higher percentage of cream, rumored to be the best for making clotted cream.

But wait, it’s not just the cows; it’s what they eat. Turns out, the lushest English grass grows in Cornwall, along the far reaches of England’s southwest coast, where there’s a microclimate so different from the rest of the country that palm trees thrive.

And, despite a bit of bluster from the neighboring shire of Devon, which touts its version as “Devon cream,” I discovered that the country’s largest clotted cream producer is based in Cornwall.

So my husband, Paul, and I point our rental car toward Land’s End and set out on a meandering expedition to the Cornish coast. Besides clotted cream, the region is famous for fishing villages, artists, gardens, smugglers and the hand pies known as pasties (pronounced “PAST-eeze”). On our tour we will encounter everything on that list that is legal.

The first thing I learn, strolling the constricted streets of Polperro, a tiny village of whitewashed stone cottages arrayed on ocean-side cliffs, is that Cornish tea isn’t a grand affair reserved for the afternoon. The town is clogged with modest tearooms and cafes offering “cream tea.” And though the fishing fleet still bobs in a little cove, I suspect Polperro serves far more scones than mackerel to the tourists who ramble the maze of pathways between the ancient abodes.

Here, “cream tea,” means two scones, a pot of tea and a hefty dollop of clotted cream, and it’s served nearly all day long. Passing up a boat tour (“nice dogs and happy babies go free”), we settle at an outdoor table and order the “Scones From Our Own Special Recipe,” not an uncommon claim here.

“Where’re you from, then?” the proprietor asks as a pink-cheeked waitress delivers our tea. His bushy eyebrows shoot up when we reply, “San Francisco”; they shoot up again when I ask for seconds on the clotted cream. In the name of research, I know no shame.

The cream is cool, smooth and sweet (though not sweetened). It clings to the knife as I spread it in artistic swirls, then melts just slightly into the warm, round scone (containing no currants, blueberries, chocolate chips, nuts or other distractions). It’s delicious, and I confirm the source is Rodda’s, the country’s largest clotted cream producer.

One requirement for Cornwall’s lush pastures is rain, and with storm clouds massing, we decide to head indoors . . . to a garden. We motor down narrow two-lane roads lined with solid walls of green hedges and trees arching to meet overhead, past little towns with odd, Harry Potter-ish names (Crumplehorn, St. Blazey Gate), until we reach the Eden Project.

Imagine botanical gardens on the vast scale of an eco-amusement park, and you’ll have an idea of the size. At the base of a 200-foot-deep, 37-acre quarry, two “biomes” covered with a series of huge hexagonal-bubbled domes (cousins to Beijing’s Olympic Water Cube) are the largest conservatories in the world, housing more than a million plants, in addition to a large waterfall. They showcase tropical and Mediterranean species, as well as the Cornish zeal for gardening and the founders’ passion for sustainable practices.

The next morning, at our tidy farmhouse B&B, we get an alternative review of the Eden Project. “That’s boring!” a fellow tourist pronounces at the breakfast table as we tuck into eggs, bacon and baked beans.

After he classifies several other famous Cornish gardens as “boring,” I finally discover he and his traveling companion are landscape designers visiting from Germany, and they don’t even have plans to see the Eden Project. Clearly, their quest (to find “acceptable” gardens) is less satisfying (but certainly less fattening) than my search for the perfect clotted cream.

I’ve been trying to contact an artisanal producer, Gwavas Jersey Farm, but my e-mails and phone messages have gone unanswered. So instead, we decide to do some sightseeing, since any self-respecting Cornish tourist destination also serves cream tea.

St. Michael’s Mount will look startlingly familiar to anybody who’s visited Mont St. Michel in France. In fact, the two island churches were under the purview of the same Norman abbot in the 11th century. Several hundred years of sackings and stormings later, Cornwall’s was taken over by the St. Aubyn family, whose descendants still live there after 12 generations.

Unlike at Mont St. Michel, there’s no raised causeway to convey visitors above the waters. Fortunately, we arrive at low tide and tread the same stone pathway, inlaid with seaweed, that medieval pilgrims followed. After a steep climb, we tour the family castle and take in sweeping views back to the coast and straight down to the island’s gardens, laid out like verdant skirts around the Mount.

There’s just enough time for cream tea at the cafe before scurrying back to the mainland ahead of the tide. Alas, though the scones are tasty, I’m given another little cup of Rodda’s clotted cream. Yes, it’s good, but I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll ever find any other kind. Rodda’s seems to have a lock on the market.

I chat up a chap in the Mount’s gift shop, who suggests we take our search to a “farm shop” and recommends one near Hayle. We head up the Cornish peninsula and discover two farm shops, emporia of local produce, jams and dairy products.

At the first, Richards of Cornwall, we find (at last!) tubs of clotted cream made by a smaller producer, Trewithen Dairy. I happily part with some cash for a tub of my own. Then, at Trevaskis Farms, I buy a box of fresh-picked strawberries, tiny and sweet. There’s also a cafe, where a refrigerated case is packed with desserts. I stand in awe as servers dish up pies, crumbles and sponge cakes, all served with a whopping dollop of Rodda’s clotted cream on top.

We forgo this dessert wonderland and opt for dipping strawberries into the Trewithen clotted cream. The texture is less uniform, the flavor sweeter, a bit more intense. Rodda’s and I have had a lovely relationship, but now I switch my fickle affections to Trewithen.

The seaside town of St. Ives is a feast of a different sort, a banquet of Cornish light. The ocean seems bluer, the beach more sparkling and the stone houses more boldly limned against the sky. That blessing of light has made the once-humble fishing village an artists’ haven for more than two centuries. Many of the views Turner and Whistler painted here can still be found, either by strolling the town or by visiting the Tate St. Ives, a branch of the major British art museum.

We walk off our clotted cream and strawberry orgy on St. Ives’s cobbled streets, stopping by galleries that display paintings, ceramics and handmade clothing.

The summer light lingers late in England and, after surviving a particularly hair-raising wisp of a road, we spend the evening’s last rays seated in a cliff-top amphitheater looking out to sea. We are near Land’s End, the most westerly bit of this entire country, watching a play at the Minack Theatre. The performance is entertaining, but my eyes keep drifting out to the cobalt waters and rocky headlands burnished by the final shafts of sun that shine on England.

The next morning, we’re in luck. Will Bowman of Gwavas Jersey Farm rings up and tells us to come on over. His farm is only six miles away, down toward England’s most southerly point, on the Lizard Peninsula.

Gwavas is a father-and-son operation: 90 Jersey cows, a handful of employees and Wiggles, the world’s cutest Jack Russell terrier, housed on a farmstead that was recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086.

Will, who runs the dairy while his father watches the cows, takes us on a tour of the fields and the dairy buildings. “I’m not what most people around here would call a conventional farmer,” he confides, and I have to agree: He’s sporting shorts, sneakers and a soccer jersey.

“It’s a bit more interesting than just farming,” he says, explaining why he started making clotted cream and yogurt 12 years ago, “because it’s a different challenge every day. If you enjoy yourself, you can make it a little bit more unusual; if you’ve got the passion, you can make it that much better.”

Will confirms my research about Jersey cows — that their milk has more cream (5 percent vs. 4 percent or less for other breeds) — but that’s not all. “It also has more lactose, more protein, more solids in general,” he says.

Despite the mysterious nature of clotted cream (do a Google search and you come up with all sorts of conflicting recipes, including some calling for sour cream), it turns out to be fairly straightforward. “It’s a simple way of doing something with milk, but it has to be precise,” Will explains.

Cream is separated from pasteurized milk by a centrifuge system, then placed in large shallow pans that are heated to 194 degrees, not quite boiling, for an hour. “Scalding it the traditional way gives it more color and more flavor,” Will says. Water evaporates, the cream thickens and a thin crust forms on the top. Then it cools, rests and thickens more.

We watch as a white-coated worker scoops the finished product into tubs. It’s a deep golden color, denser in some places, a bit runnier in others. “It’s a moving product,” Will says. “As it gets older, it will thicken.”

He picks up a tub and invites us to have a taste. We sit on a picnic table outside his weathered stone house, while Wiggles and a resident cat snooze nearby in the sun.

Digging a spoon into the clotted cream, I realize I’m going to be mainlining the stuff: no scones, no berries. But one bite and I know I’ve found clotted cream nirvana. The textures roll across my tongue, buttery, rich and intense. It seems as if I’m devouring the distilled essence of the Cornish landscape, the green that overgrows stone fences and nearly chokes the roads.

“Good milk,” Will says by way of explanation, “has just got a fresh taste to it, and the sweeter the grass, the sweeter the milk.” I ask if we can visit the cows that produced this wonder, and Will leads us to pastures bordered on one side by the ocean.

“Thank you, ladies!” I shout, holding up my tub of clotted cream, as the nosy bovines come over to investigate us. They are fawn-colored, with little topknots between their ears. “Each one has a different hairdo,” Will points out, grinning.

Surveying the fields rimmed by wild foxgloves and bright-pink thistles, he says: “We don’t need any more than what we’ve got around us. There are lots of people who don’t have it so good.” That includes clotted cream lovers who don’t live in Cornwall; preferring a personal relationship with customers, Will refuses to sell his product outside its borders.

After our visit, we drive a few miles to Kynance Cove, considered one of Cornwall’s most beautiful spots. I hike across the cliffs clutching my tub of Gwavas clotted cream. There is a little cafe at the end of the trail, and I’m sure it will have scones.

As we sit outside, looking down at the turquoise ocean bashing and frothing around craggy black rocks, I slather the cream over a warm scone. The heck with posh hotel tearooms. This is the best clotted cream I’ve ever tasted, and this spot, right here, is the best possible place to eat it.